A five-day mother-daughter vacation in the Caribbean ended in frustration and tears for two Toronto women because of a malfunctioning at-home COVID-19 test kit and a miscommunication within Air Canada’s ranks.
Ellen, who prefers to use only her first name, says the trouble started when she tried to use a Switch Health reverse transcription loop-mediated isothermal amplification test (RT-LAMP). The tests are approved by Health Canada as a PCR-alternative and currently available only to Air Canada Aeroplan members.
She says before her departure for Antigua, she received an email from Air Canada, promoting the at-home tests as a convenient and affordable option which is valid for re-entry into Canada.
“So we thought, great. We won’t have to go around and look for a lab in Antigua and this would be really convenient,” she tells CityNews.
Test malfunction and scrambling for a backup
The Switch Health test involves a self-administered nasal swab that is conducted while on video call with a nurse from the company. The nurse walks you through the test and answers any questions you may have.
Ellen says her daughter’s test went smoothly and she received her negative result without any complications. But when it was her turn, the test device did not work as it was supposed to.
“Right away, my apparatus started flashing. All the lights were flashing, which was different from my daughter’s,” she explained. “So we showed the apparatus to the nurse. She said ‘no, it won’t work’.”
The nurse suggested removing the batteries and re-inserting them. After about four tries they had to give up and the nurse helped file a complaint, promptly refunding the cost of one test that same day.
“But that left me in a terrible situation. I now have to scramble to get a PCR test done, find a medical facility, before our departure on Air Canada the next day,” said Ellen.
With some help from the hotel, an appointment was booked at a lab in the capital city of St. John’s — a $60 cab ride away.
“Essentially, it took half a day of our holiday. We had to take a cab into St. John’s, sit in a waiting room for probably two and a half, three hours until the doctor could see me. He did the nasal swab and charged me $349 U.S. dollars for the test,” said Ellen.
Set to take off the next day, Ellen says the wait for her results was agonizing and at first, front desk staff could not locate them. They had to ask the doctor to resend the results, which arrived just in time for their departure.
“So we thought fine, thank goodness. Everything is fine,” said Ellen, but their relief was short-lived.
Bad news from Air Canada
When Ellen and her daughter arrived at their gate at the airport, Air Canada check-in crew were expecting them, waiting to deliver some bad news.
They had uploaded their details to the ArriveCan app before boarding and the ground crew informed them the RT-LAMP test results Ellen’s daughter had submitted were not valid for travel back to Canada.
“They said, we can’t accept this, but don’t worry — there’s another flight on Friday [this was on Sunday],” said Ellen. “I thought I was gonna have a stroke.”
Apart from various commitments to attend to at home, Ellen says their vacation was by no means inexpensive and staying another five days was not only out of the question but simply unaffordable.
Ellen said she tried explaining that Air Canada had promoted the test via an email and her daughter showed them her results which clearly state that the test is approved by Health Canada, all to no avail.
“They said, no, we can’t let you. In fact, we just declined a passenger yesterday and didn’t let her board,” said Ellen.
After 45 minutes of back and forth between ground crews in Antigua and supervisors in Barbados, the check-in desk was just about to close.
“At that point, my daughter honestly had a breakdown,” she said. “To be told that you can’t come back to Canada when we’ve got the negative test was just like beyond belief, beyond stressful.”
Ellen says the ground crew finally relented and said “let Canada deal with the issue,” allowing her daughter to board.
“But you wonder, why did Air Canada not let their staff know that this type of test was being promoted and that it was acceptable?” she asked. “Given the fact that they refused another passenger boarding the day before, they had a good 24-hours to iron out the details of recognizing this new test and familiarizing their staff with it.”
In a statement to CityNews, Air Canada confirmed “the Government of Canada accepts the Switch Health Lamp test for entry into Canada, so customers on all Air Canada flights to Canada can use these.”
“With respect to these customers’ recent flight from Antigua, there was a misunderstanding on the part of our local agent and we have addressed this internally,” they said.
Compensation and reimbursement
“I don’t know what price you put on stress,” said Ellen. “I really think that air Canada is equally as culpable in this situation, since they sanctioned this and they promoted this [test]”
She says following CityNews’ inquiry, the airline reached out and offered her daughter a $300 Air Canada voucher.
“I don’t think $300 compensation is really adequate for the stress that both my daughter and I endured,” Ellen said. ““It went from a 10-plus holiday for the first five days to just like the worst experience, I think I’ve ever gone through — the most stressful.”
She also feels that Switch Health should refund the cost of the second test and be liable for the cost of the PCR test she was forced to take because their at-home test malfunctioned. In her correspondence with the company, they refused any further reimbursement, saying the refund for the test that malfunctioned has been processed.
“It was galling because they then said ‘it’s your responsibility to ensure that you have the proper test for travel’, which I thought was just outrageous that they would put the blame on me,” she said.
CityNews reached out to Switch Health about the situation and spokesman Jordan Paquet reiterated that the company’s RT-LAMP tests are “an authorized molecular test that can be used for entry to Canada.”
“In the unlikely event of a test malfunction, a refund is issued once Switch Health is notified,” he said.
A cautionary tale
Ellen says she wants to warn other travellers and hopes her experience gives people some pause and food for thought.
Apart from the malfunction, she says the test is not easy to use for those who are not very tech savvy. In addition, a very stable internet connection is vital to complete the process, which may not always be available on holiday.
“Our connection was quite good in the room, but the call kept dropping. Maybe if [people are] going to a destination where they don’t have quality wi-fi, you’re going to encounter a huge problem. You need a backup plan,” she said.
Ellen adds if she could do it all over again, she would not purchase the test kits and would have planned ahead to get PCR tests in Antigua. Ironically, the resort they were staying at had organized tests for guests at a discounted price of $100.
“Switch health and Air Canada need to put warnings on these kits. It was supposed to be so convenient,” she said.